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Ring of the Fellowship

FREESTYLE FELLOWSHIP
Temptations (Project Blowed)

FREESTYLE FELLOWSHIP
Version 2.0 (Beats and Rhymes)

MIKAH 9
Timetable (Kaihou)

Ever since releasing their germinal To Whom It May Concern just over 10 years ago, the Freestyle Fellowship have anchored California’s flourishing hip-hop underground. Aceyalone, Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E. and Self Jupiter didn’t just inspire an entire generation of artists, they’ve stayed on the scene as innovators. As a group, though, they’ve been noticeably absent — their last album together was 1993’s Inner City Griots. Despite numerous solo projects, the only place to find the Fellowship gathered has been on random singles and compilations. That’s all changed with three new Fellowship-related albums, beginning with the long-awaited reunion, Temptations.

The Fellowship show that age hasn’t slowed them down on the best songs, like “Ghetto Youth” — a stunner built on sinister rhythms and punishing rhymes — or the marathon lyrical exercise “No Hooks, No Chorus.” But Temptations lacks consistency. Much of the production slumps into a midtempo droop that’s more lazy than languid. Worse, the group’s chemistry goes AWOL too often; though each member hits his stride, there’s not enough interaction to create synergistic magic. Newer listeners might wonder what the fuss is about.

Temptations is a good idea awkwardly executed; the Fellowship’s Version 2.0 is simply a bad idea. J. Sumbi’s remix of the entire To Whom It May Concern album is like revamping De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising or Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — why mess with perfection? The beats were far ahead of their time in 1991, and while Sumbi deploys a fuller, cleaner, keyboard-based sound, his one-note approach wears quickly.

Onward to Mikah 9’s solo Timetable. While Aceyalone has been the Fellowship’s most visible member, Mikah is no less gifted. If Acey’s verbal experiments and unpredictable flow make him hip-hop’s Monk, Mikah is Bird, unleashing straight virtuosity on the mic. “Life and Death” hits like a roundhouse as he fashions himself into a verbal keyboard, staying in perfect rhythmic and melodic sync with Daddy Kev’s pulsating beat and bass lines; on “Free Energy,” his mouth is a hooting, hollering, moaning scat instrument. Comprising more than 20 freestyles, alternative edits and original songs, Timetable is messy to dig through, especially considering many of the freestyles’ muddled sounds. But with his creative spirit and sheer overload of talent, Mikah taps into the best traditions of what the Fellowship have offered for the last 10 years.

MASTER P
Gameface (No Limit/Universal)

You know it’s all gone to hell when even thugs are glued to CNN, but No Limit Records founder-figurehead Master P isn’t feeling this armchair-punditocracy crap; he’s too wrapped up in his own back yard: “Brothers trippin’ on bin Laden, what about the hood?” he yells at one point.

Superficially at least, Gameface is the standard baller’s manifesto, a judicious blend of bling-bling and caveats to haters. But at its gooey center, P bares his pussy-whipped soul with “A Woman,” a straight-up valentine to domestic bliss. Elsewhere, silky keyboards, relentless kick drum, filtered funk guitars and P’s lazy shout-flow amp up minimalist Southern bounce with hardcore swagger. Simply put: The disc is stacked with beats that make you grab your nuts. We’ll probably never get another “(Make ’Em Say) Unnh” — the moronically irresistible ’97 hit that put No Limit on the map — but “Take It Outside,” “I Don’t,” “Rock It” and “Back on Top” ripple with a pump-your-fist urgency that proves livin’ large hasn’t made these soldiers flabby.

There’s some gap-toothed crackerjack shit like “Ooohhhwee,” but the corn is countered with the woozy lope of “The Block,” a hard-times retrospective bursting with colorful metaphors: “We the tapwater-on-cornflakes kinda niggas.” A Southern gentleman to the bone, P lends his misogyny the ring of (gulp) Old World charm. “To y’all bitches trying to get in a 430, a Lexus, a Bentley or a Ferrari — I ain’t mad at ya,” P declaims in “We Want Dough,” where a robo-hoochie gurgles, “Buy me clothes/shopping sprees/pass those keys.” In true thug fashion, P actually welcomes gold diggers — relationships are less complicated that way. (Andrew Lentz)

DIMITRI FROM PARIS
After the Playboy Mansion (Astralwerks)

Groove is in the goddamn heart. When adrenaline and chemicals can do no more, it’s groove that keeps you going at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, which is arguably the best time to be dancing at a club, since the BPM-devouring weekend warriors have put their clumsy stupor to bed and the DJ has started playing “sleaze” music, as some used to call it — basically, records that get your groove on.

On his new retro-global house double-disc mix — a morning-after follow-up to his popular A Night at the Playboy Mansion — Dimitri From Paris makes this moment very specific by opening with the 1981 T.S. Monk track “Candidate for Love”: “The sun’s bursting in/It’s a bright Sunday morning . . .” Soft, dewy strings then begin to trail Yvonne Fletcher’s wake-up call: “Wanna feel what it’s like/To wake up in the morning/With someone who really loves me deep inside.” Man, what a pretty disco delusion. But unlike the monsieur’s own productions on 1998’s Sacre Bleu — his only full-length, where his strenuously Frenchy bachelor-pad music is furnished with faux everything — the delusions he peddles as a DJ actually come from a fervid, almost intoxicated sincerity. Yeah, he absolutely worships these ’70s tracks by Harold Melvin, Grace Jones and (quite rare) Best Friends Around, and his love-joy mixing puts you back on the floor to catch those falling disco balloons with your eyelashes.

Not all the tracks are vintage. Jon Cutler’s “It’s Yours” is one of today’s house-club staples, and there ain’t a lovelier, dirtier modern-day soul voice than the one belonging to Moloko’s Roisin Murphy, who sings “Never Enough.” Those tracks are on the disc of “uplifting selections.” The other disc has “laidback selections” (Les Nubians, Deep Sensation, Maze), since groove is equally effective as a club or tub performance. (Tommy Nguyen)

THE MELODY UNIT
Choose Your Own Adventure (Hidden Agenda)

DAVID BARBE
Comet of the Season (Backburner)

David Barbe, former bassist with Bob Mould’s Sugar and current engineer-producer, recorded his solo debut between projects over the past few years — and it sounds it. But his muscular, Beatles-via-Robyn-Hitchcock-influenced pop songs offer far more than just the showcase of intriguing sounds and textures you’d expect from a producer. He gives a fresh twist to familiar ideas — the odd, chord-bending guitars in “Two Small Stones” and “Medicine Takeover”; the rich, airy vocal mix in “Nickel a Minute” — and if cuts like the dreamy “Soft Distant Light” and “Silver White Flash” are too Hitchcockian, no problem, Hitchcock hasn’t sounded this good since Perspex Island.

Meanwhile, the Melody Unit takes more of an ensemble approach. Like New Jersey’s Speed the Plough or a more organic Stereolab, M.U. layers waves of shimmering guitars, squishy analog synths, and the wispy vocals of Jessica Folsom and Kevin Kelly over a gentle, driving pulse. Too often, “dreamy pop” translates to lack of substance. Not so with this batch of tunes, which is more focused and refined than the band’s previous efforts. The rhythm section is powerful without overpowering — a key ingredient to making the mechanical pulse of “Go (Or Not Go)” and the folk-pop of “Welcome Back Tomorrow” propulsive rather than wimpy. Even when the tunes are more about mood than song — “Snoqualmie” builds and swirls for half of its seven minutes, and the five-minute “Prepare the Juggernaut” consists almost entirely of two alternating chords — there’s a method to the music.

Two very different records by two very different artists from opposite ends of the U.S. (Georgia and Seattle). So, what’s the connection? Both are warm, personal, hand-tooled efforts by folks with a genuine musical vision — and the chops to pull it off. (Michael Lipton)

JOSH HOMME, MARK LANEGAN, NATASHA SCHNEIDER, ALAIN JOHANNES, ET AL.
Desert Sessions 7 & 8 (Rekords Rekords/Southern Lord)

In Wes Craven’s 1977 horror classic The Hills Have Eyes, an urban family is stranded in the desert and terrorized by the local cannibals, and the surviving members must get in touch with their “inner savage” to triumph over their tormentors. Twenty years later, Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme began a similar social experiment in the form of the “Desert Sessions,” sticking a revolving cast of musicians in a small Joshua Tree studio. Free of the usual constraints, the players reconnect with the demons and desires that motivated them in the first place. The results are often as compelling as they are weird, but unlike in Craven’s film, the only things that get killed are brain cells.

This latest installment was written and recorded in six days by a motley cast including Homme, Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees/Queens of the Stone Age), Samantha Maloney (Hole), Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Fred Drake (Earthlings), and Natasha Schneider and Alain Johannes (Eleven/Chris Cornell Band). Despite the participants’ hard-rock pedigrees, the 13 tracks feature mostly acoustic instrumentation. With their droning harmonies and martial beats, “Don’t Drink Poison,” “Up in Hell,” “Nenada” and “Making a Cross” could all be souvenirs from the Queens’ summer vacation in the Balkans; “Hanging Tree,” which features Lanegan on lead vocals, exudes the forceful yet mysterious air of his best work with the Screaming Trees.

For those with a taste for the unhinged, there are the hilarious audio collages of “Winners” and “Interpretive Reading,” and Drake’s cocktail-lounge ballad “Courvoisier,” with its seductive chorus, “Ooh I really miss you/Since I killed you.” Throw in a 90-second medley of cock-rock concert clichés (“Ending”) and a piano bench collapsing under the combined weight of Homme and Goss (“Piano Bench Breaks”), and it all adds up to the sound of several talented people having a blast to- .gether. Now the rest of us can join in on the fun. (Dan Epstein)